Is British Democracy Becoming A Competition of Incompetence?

If we all stand back and take a ruthless, non-tribal, unheroic look at the standards on offer in the general election, this is a competition of incompetence. It is only because the Labour Party has so lost its way that the Conservatives appear in any way competent.

In practice, the Conservative’s current majority and ‘liberation’ from the moderating power of the LibDems, has seen them binging on their ideology: cut public services in the name of austerity economics, harsh on welfare, all things ‘private’ are good, grammar schools, etc.

Theresa May’s enlightened proposals for worker representation on company boards, calling into question Hinkley Point nuclear power station, and restraining executive pay have disappeared as the lobbying has swung into action and yet more power seeps from us, the citizens, to big companies and industries and other powerful preferential lobbies.

The irony of our system is that the Conservative party’s belief in free markets does not extend to the electoral marketplace, which would be in all of our interests.

Representative democracy is, or should be, a competitive market. Politicians and political parties are competing to win the power to govern. As with all markets, the more competitive it is, the higher are the standards of product or service.

The less competitors, the lower the standards.

Imagine just two car manufacturers, or only two supermarket chains. Standards would be low, although, very occasionally, we might be lucky. Alas, in Westminster, with First Past The Post holding us hostage, competition is limited to the two main political parties.

The common narrative now presents the choice as between the competent Conservative government and the incompetent Opposition. Theresa May has only to be perceived to be better than Jeremy Corbyn to win. Big ask.

Peter Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday puts it this way:

“I can put up with Mrs May saying she’s not as bad as the alternative. That’s probably true, except if she decides to have a war. But the idea that our rulers have any idea what they are doing, or can be trusted with our national future, is a joke.”

George Monbiot in The Guardian displays similar disenchantment.

Regardless as to whether remaining or leaving is for the better in the round, David Cameron made one of the great blunders of modern times in calling the referendum using the simplistic question posed and without the essential accompanying independent information, public engagement on the basis of knowledge, and deliberation essential to taking a sound decision – EDD: Engage, Deliberate, Decide.

Elections come and go, and the same old same old follow: debates, initiatives, announcements, legislation, restructurings, altered fundings, new managements, and new names ramble on alongside the self-scoring rhetorically massaged statistics so essential to the modern minister to ‘prove’ that it’s working. Except it isn’t and it doesn’t.

The incompetence on offer is near universal.

Schools continue to be pulled this way and that by the latest wheeze: in no other European country do politicians agree so little on policy for schools.

The train service has been an ordeal by buck passing for many commuters. The Swiss don’t find this necessary. The Conservative party does, as it worships at that alter of the false god, fake privatisation.

The health service has been under permanent reform since the early 80s and is still not reformed. Welfare policy is presently hard on benefits, having been soft on benefits under Labour, with almost no useful feedback on what has and has not worked for which segment of recipient under either extreme, to inform future policy.

Austerity has not worked economically, let alone socially. Neo-liberalism, for which none of us voted, continues to rule to the detriment of most. Totalitarian corporates and their abuse of market power, are one consequence.

Banking regulation has been tightened a bit, but they continue to cook up fiendishly clever derivatives – some/all of which will fail and will we pay the costs.

As consumers and as employees, we continue to struggle our way through public services, and to struggle our way through the privatized and flaccidly regulated utilities. Oh, those dangerous beliefs.

In the last 30 years, has any one thing actually ever been sorted out properly and left well alone to function? This does happen in other countries, believe it or not. Germany has had the same system for schools since 1949.

Few developed countries have the perpetual debate/row over the organization of their health services, which is deemed normal here.

People going into politics are usually able and well-motivated. Their – and our -problem is that they enter a system that is broken: it is a real struggle to bring about any beneficial change on the ground. It’s not surprising that it’s broken because it has never been designed.

It’s never been designed to spend 40% of GDP on a large range of highly varied public services, nor to handle the global power of big corporates, banks, and media companies. Preferential lobbying is not an inevitability but a direct consequence of this absence of design.

None of this is the fault of the political parties: they have been borne into a system that makes them incompetent in government. But they are to blame for not changing it. 

We all get so sucked into the low-level debates that today’s politics depend upon, in my case by my neighbour trumpeting that current refrain – “she needs a bigger majority.” Why? To deliver us safely from the mountain I suppose.

The psychological implications of these ‘narratives’ are really quite dodgy.

Party supporters are well schooled by Central Office. Another parrot came in response to why May is not appearing in the televised leaders’ debates: “not a forum in which competence can be demonstrated.” Neither are Prime Minister’s Questions, party advertising, or photo opportunities.

Dogfights around carefully manicured messages, the tribalism that draws us in to a fatuous debate, the news media feeding off an election soap opera, and simple like and dislike of a politician, all maintain the status quo.

If, like me, the prospect of this election is inducing lethargy, annoyance, and ‘what is the point?’, one comfort is that this is an entirely rational response. Little will change, little will improve, some will degrade.

The good news is that less and less of us are taken in. I smiled on reading that in France “something important happened that was largely unnoticed: an opinion poll showed that the main concern of the people was neither unemployment nor immigration, but the reform of state institutions and the implementation of a radical sixth republic” by Olivier Tonneau.

The French understand the power and significance of a constitution to their quality of life. Will a tipping point occur here, when enough conclude that it’s the system we should be voting on not another set of people destined for a lifetime of underachievement?

Once the system works then who runs it becomes germane.

Is there another way? Yes. The system we have has not come down from heaven. It’s a mixture of the bare essentials of basic democracy, human rights, and rule of law, and stuff bolted on as government’s role has expanded hugely, and its operation become complex.

It’s like the crumbling stately homes of the aristocracy before the National Trust took them over.

If you’re interested in what an effective system of government would look like, here is one as a diagramAnd in words:

Would it be better? Do you have other ideas? What would bring it about? Is it time both the Labour and Conservative parties are referred to the competition authorities for monopolistic practices?

Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger.

While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.